This article appears in The Photo Issue 2015
While making these images, I found myself at odds with the process of creating a series of photographs that claim to represent the nuances of faith-based spaces and communities in Appalachia. I struggled with the complexity of translating the value and power of religion to urban populations, which have long participated in the characterization of rural people as simplistic and naive.
In central Appalachia, churches can serve as spaces of kindness that are capable of rallying care, love, and support to those in need. Often these spaces exist beyond the fantasy and spectacle of redemption, as meeting grounds for community members to share resources and aid. The rural church, as a personal site of belief and actualization, can mobilize quickly and meaningfully in times of crisis. This is of particular value in Appalachia, where local and federal governments have stolen and misappropriated disaster funds for nearly a century.
It's here, in these small churches surrounded by the Appalachian mountains, that I'm forced to question and acknowledge how rural communities struggle with the decline of the powerful mono-economy that was coal. It's here that I can sit—as an outsider at odds with religion—next to faithful locals who are reckoning with the same questions of abundance and decline. And it's here that we collectively create a space to offer solace from a drug epidemic that is rapidly diminishing a large portion of the population.
My experiences within these churches have enabled me to open myself to the value of shared belief, community, and faith. And although I have not become a believer, neither saved nor born again, I have been enriched by strangers who have hugged me, shaken my hand, told me I was loved, and invited me into their homes to share a meal. These gestures of kindness and acceptance—of community—have done so much to stave off my persistent loneliness and my own cloak of darkness that I carry with me. They made me feel accepted and cared about in a genuine way, despite my demons, struggles, and personal failures. I believe that you, too, would be treated this way no matter your past or present circumstances. So while I do not see a solution in Christ as savior, I have been impacted by the transformative power of faith and by the essential goodness of fellowship.